BMW 3 Series vs BMW 5 Series

BMW 3 Series vs BMW 5 Series: save money with BMW's smaller saloon car, or upgrade to the bigger one?

John Evans
Sep 27, 2021

If you're looking for a family car with luxury, performance, and sharp cornering, then the chances are you're considering a BMW. These two cars are favourites with company car drivers, but private buyers will find just as much to like.

Although buyers are increasingly opting for taller and more rugged SUVs, such as the BMW X3 or X5, the company's traditional saloon cars still sell in their thousands. There are plenty of other BMW SUVs to choose from, too.

Most popular are the BMW 3 Series and BMW 5 Series, available in a huge range of specifications, from frugal hybrid cars to high-performance M models.

Jaguar's XE and XF offer a similar blend of performance and comfort, but fewer models are available and far more people choose the BMWs; Mercedes C-Class and E-Class are generally smoother over bumpy roads, but feel less agile on corners. Audi and Volvo both sell equivalently sized saloons, as well.

BMW 3 Series vs BMW 5 Series: the main differences 

  • Prices for an early version of the current BMW 3 Series start at £27,595 compared with early versions of the current 5 Series, which cost from £21,550
  • The 3 Series is 254mm shorter than the 5 Series (4709mm compared with 4963mm)
  • The 3 Series’ boot is smaller than the 5 Series’ (480 litres compared with 530 litres)
  • The most economical 3 Series is the 330e at 134.5mpg compared with the 530e at 141.2mpg 
  • The 5 Series has the latest infotainment system and more driver assistance systems than the 3 Series

BMW 3 Series & 5 Series design

3 Series

The BMW 3 Series was updated in 2019, gaining new technology and styling. While the old model (sold from 2012) looked quite like the 5 Series, the new 3 Series has bolder styling than previous models. It’ll stand out in the office car park with eye-catching bonnet creases and notched LED headlights, while range-topping M Sport versions come with racier styling to look a little like the BMW M3.

5 Series

The new 5 Series takes its styling cues from the bigger (and more expensive) BMW 7 Series saloon, launched in 2015. In fact, it’s easy to confuse them. A facelift in 2020 brought sharper lights and bumpers at each end, but to our eyes, the 5 Series looks a little more conservative than the latest 3 Series.

Dimensions and weight

3 Series

The 3 Series is, naturally, smaller than the Five. For the record, it's 4633mm long, 1811mm wide and 1441mm high. Between the front and rear wheels (called the wheelbase), it’s 2810mm. This last measure is important since it’s a clue to how much occupant space there is (more about that later). The boot has a capacity of 480 litres. Depending on the model, the 3 Series weighs around 1500kg.

5 Series

Across all key measures, the Five is bigger than the Three. At 4935mm in length, 1868mm in width and 1466mm in height, it’s 302mm longer, 57mm wider and 25mm taller than the Three. Meanwhile, its wheelbase is 2975mm, or a useful 165mm longer than the Three’s. The boot is 530 litres – 50 litres larger than the Three’s. Depending on the model, it weighs around 1600kg, or 100kg more than the 3 Series.

Engines and gearbox

3 Series

There’s an array of four and six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines to choose from, ranging from the 318i petrol to the supercar-chasing 3.0-litre M3. However, at the heart of the line-up is the tried and trusted 190hp 2.0-litre diesel that lives under the bonnet of the 320d. It does 0-62mph in just 6.8 seconds, returns 60mpg and emits 123g/km CO2. Eco-conscious drivers will be drawn to the 330e plug-in hybrid with its 37-mile fully electric range. Most versions are rear-wheel drive but there are also four-wheel-drive models badged xDrive. Gearboxes are a choice of six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic.

5 Series

The Five is powered by some of the same engines as you’ll find in the Three, so one of the most popular is likely to be the 190hp 2.0-litre diesel. Despite having to haul a heavier car, this engine, whose power is the same as the 3 Series’ 2.0-litre diesel engine, is very nearly as fast and barely any less economical (59mpg). There’s also a plug-in hybrid engine badged 530e that can return 201.8mpg and emissions of 31g/CO2, while being fast enough to leave hot hatchbacks in the rearview mirror.

Like the Three, the 5 Series is rear-wheel drive with the option of xDrive four-wheel drive on some versions. A manual gearbox is no longer offered on the Five, however, and it likely won’t be long before that option is completely removed from the 3 Series as well.

Driving impressions

3 Series

The 3 Series is a compact, agile sports saloon that even at this stage in its life, runs rings around the opposition. Engines are powerful and responsive, the rear-drive set-up makes cornering a delight (xDrive provides added security in the wet) and it has a supple ride that masks all but the worst bumps.

5 Series

Like the 3 Series, the new Five beats its rivals on most performance measures. Still rear-wheel drive (or xDrive if you wish), lighter, riding on a new, more sophisticated suspension system and powered by a heavily worked range of responsive engines, it’s without equal in its class. What raises it above the 3 Series is its crucial extra dollop of ride and refinement. It’s just as agile but luxurious with it.

Interior

3 Series

The 3 series’ dashboard looks reasonably modern and sporty with its wraparound dash, low button count and large centre screen. As you’d expect, fit and finish, and material quality are first-class. There’s a large control wheel for the iDrive infotainment system conveniently located next to the gear lever. The system is intuitive and the presentation is crystal clear.

5 Series

Not surprisingly, the new 5 Series has a slightly more luxurious cabin than the cheaper Three. The dashboard has obviously been inspired by the larger, more luxurious 7 Series, and features a much more wraparound design. A large 10.3-inch centre touchscreen is optional and likely to be specified by most owners. There’s a greater variety of textures and materials, and the fit and finish is superb.

Space and practicality

BMW 330e plug-in hybrid boot

3 Series

Given its smaller dimensions, in particular its shorter wheelbase, you’d expect the 3 Series to feel cramped and certainly less comfortable than the larger Five. But while the Five is roomier, the Three is no squeeze. There’s decent head and legroom for all occupants. The rear centre passenger is forced to place their feet either side of the bulky transmission tunnel, however, making long journeys a chore. The boot is a decent size and well-shaped, while the reasonably priced optional 40:20:40 split rear seat means you can stow longer loads and still carry one or two passengers.

5 Series

Inevitably the larger 5 Series is roomier all round than the Three. It’s especially noticeable in the back where there’s usefully more head, leg and elbow room. However, there’s still a transmission tunnel to contend with, although this time there’s more space for the centre passenger. With 50 litres of additional boot space, the Five is more practical than the Three, at least on paper. In reality, it’s spoiled by some awkward intrusions but like the Three, you can specify folding rear seats that alleviate the problem.

Both models can be had as an estate, with more boot space than the saloon, a bigger boot opening and standard-fit folding rear seats.

Technology

3 Series

The 3 Series may be cheaper than the 5, but you won’t find many of the gadgets and gizmos missing. After all, the 3 Series is more expensive than a comparably sized Volkswagen Passat or Mazda 6, so it features the very latest technology. The excellent iDrive system controls things like sat-nav and media on a large centre screen, and there's a host of optional driver-assist features from blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist to adaptive cruise control.

5 Series

When talking about any BMW you have to be careful to distinguish between standard and optional equipment. The new Five is no exception but it does have a higher level of standard kit than not only its predecessor but also the 3 Series. Standard is a 10.3-inch centre touchscreen which, as an option, you can operate by gesture control, a feature first seen on the 7 Series where you waggle your fingers to adjust the volume and access various services. The standard head-up display is larger than before, and absent on the 3 Series. The sat-nav is much more advanced, too.

The new Five also brings more semi-autonomous technology to make long journeys a breeze. Given clear road markings, it can drive itself at speeds up to 130mph, steering as it does so. It will change lanes, too, if the driver has checked it’s safe to do so and operates the indicator stalk. In slow-moving jams, it can also follow the car in front. However, its party trick is being able to park itself with the driver outside the car operating it via a special, optional key.

Read more about:

Latest advice

  1. What is E10 fuel and can my car use it?

  2. Outstanding finance on a car

  3. Breakdown cover for older cars